Discovering agility: The mystery of the Sabre

Soldiers, scientists, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, improvisational comedians, and athletes must all act–and act decisively–despite facing an impenetrable fog of the future. Over the past decade I have studied action under uncertainty in a variety of domains to glean insights that could prove useful to managers facing turbulent markets.  One of the most robust findings was the value of iterative loops when proceeding into an uncertain future. These iterative loops include distinct steps to make sense of an ambiguous situation, make choices, execute, and then revise in light of new information. Variations of the agility loop have emerged as useful tools to guide scientific experimentation, aerial combat, software development, and venture capital investments. My next several posts will discuss how loops can promote agility in turbulent domains, beginning with an unexpected military success that triggered a fundamental rethinking of military doctrine.

As the Korean War began, the situation looked bleak for the US pilots and their allies fighting under the United Nations flag. North Korea, along with the Soviet Union and Peoples Republic of China, could field more jets, and flew superior planes. The American-made F-86, nicknamed “the Sabre,” had entered active service only the preceding year and was unproven in combat. The Sabre’s swept back wings cut a fine profile, but at the time few experts considered it equal to its Soviet-produced counterpart, the Mikoyan-Gurevich (MiG) 15.

The MiG 15 matched the Sabre against most performance dimensions and surpassed it on a few critical attributes. The MiG could ascend quicker than the Sabre, operated better at high altitudes, and had an large advantage in its thrust-to-weight ratio, a critical measure of power. The MiG also packed a bigger wallop, carrying three cannons with two hundred rounds, each capable of blowing an enemy out of the sky. The Sabre, in contrast, came equipped with six machine guns and eight rockets.

The North Koreans and their allies also enjoyed superior position. The Communists massed large formations of MiGs on the Chinese side of the border with Korea, lay in wait, and scrambled to attack passing Sabres from high altitudes. If the MiGs won the upper hand, they could pursue the UN pilots back to their base. But when the MiG pilots got into trouble, their pilots could retreat to the safety of Chinese air space, off limits to UN pilots. In the heat of battle, UN pilots sometimes disregarded these orders and pursued their adversaries across the border, but the deck remained stacked against the UN fighters.

Facing more planes, better planes, and superior position, military experts predicted heavy losses for the Sabres. In the early days of the conflict, UN pilots were expected to lose ten planes for every MiG they shot down in battle, a ten-to-one kill ratio in military parlance. As the conflict proceeded, the kill ratios were indeed lopsided, but it was the UN fighter pilots who outgunned the MiGs by a ratio of ten to one. The official US Air Force reports tally 792 MiGs shot down to 76 Sabres over the course of the Korean War.

Among the top brass, the lopsided victory in the Korean war inspired more pride than understanding. The advantages that typically confer victory—superior resources or position—clearly didn’t account for the surprising results. The UN forces flew planes that many experts rated inferior to the MiGs, could deploy fewer of them, and flew from less secure bases. In the end, the Air Force brass attributed the success to superior pilots—a facile explanation that ignored the reality that seasoned Russian pilots flew many of the missions.

The Sabre’s success remained a mystery for well over a decade. By late 1960s, however, a loosely-organized group, known as the “Fighter Mafia,” battled to secure funding for two new planes, the F15 and F16. John Boyd, a leader of the group, revisited the results of the Korean War to garner insights to help design the ultimate fighter. My next post few posts will introduce John Boyd, relate his analysis of the dogfights over the Korean Peninsula, and describe the OODA loop Boyd used to conceptualize battle.

Leading in turbulent times

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Don Sull is professor of management practice in strategic and international management, and faculty director of executive education at London Business School. This blog is dedicated to helping entrepreneurs, managers, and outside directors to lead more effectively in a turbulent world.

Over the past decade, Prof Sull has studied volatile industries including telecommunications, airlines, fast fashion, and information technology, as well as turbulent countries including Brazil and China, and found specific behaviours that consistently differentiate more, and less, successful firms. His conclusion is that actions, not an individual’s traits, increase the odds of success in turbulent markets, and these actions can be learned.